Prudence Will Watch Over You – Part 1
The pandemic of 2020 has changed our lives and routines, but thanks be to God, here in 2021, we have good reason to hope that its end is in sight. Through the hard work of so many doctors and scientists, we now have vaccinations to fight back the spread of COVID-19 and protect us all.
When we are living between fear and hope, it is easy for misinformation to spread. In particular, some misunderstandings about the Catholic Church’s stance on vaccinations have been circulating. Since the topic is of paramount concern for our society and our witness to human dignity, Bishop Raica has requested me to put together a series of short articles exploring the moral and theological dimensions of the COVID vaccines. The goal is to make sure that the Catholics of the Diocese of Birmingham are well informed about the issues at stake.
As a student of Sacred Scripture, I think the Book of Proverbs provides us with a good starting point for this discussion. The authors and compilers of the poems and sayings of Proverbs were very interested in finding God in the decisions of their ordinary lives. In fact, they saw the search for wisdom and guidance as a place to encounter God and learn His will. As Proverbs 2:11 says, “prudence will watch over you, and understanding will guard you.” Prudence and understanding are God-given gifts within the human spirit, and He rejoices when we use them for His glory. My prayer is that our shared search for wisdom and prudence in this matter will be an occasion for all of us to come closer to the Lord and give witness to His truth.
The gift of prudence is important for reflecting on the moral dimension of these vaccines for two major reasons. First, the availability of vaccinations is a great gift for the common good of our society and indeed the entire world. COVID-19 has affected all of us profoundly, and it has caused tremendous physical, spiritual, and economic suffering, which the vaccines will help to address. This is why Pope Francis, Pope-Emeritus Benedict, and many other leaders of the Church, including our own Bishop Raica, have received it: as a witness to the positive value and importance of getting vaccinated as a personal contribution to the good of protecting our neighbors.
Second, prudent reflection is needed because the process of research and development behind some of the vaccines presents a few ethical questions. As you may have heard, some medical research over the last decades has made use of stem cells derived from aborted fetuses obtained in the 1960s. While the Church objects to this practice, the position of the Vatican and the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) is that when there is no alternative to a vaccine using these cell lines, getting vaccinated with them is morally permissible, since the connection with abortion is extremely remote—receiving vaccines like these does not contribute to abortion. Since most of the candidate and approved vaccines make at least some use of these stem cell lines, this is a good moment for Catholics to inform ourselves on this issue. We will dedicate one entire article to reflecting on it in light of the Church’s moral teaching.
Our shared journey of prudent discernment will unfold in future articles, which will cover:
- The bioethics of the current and upcoming vaccines
- How vaccines are related to the common good
- A Biblical reflection on public health and disease
This discernment will apply the magisterial guidance received from the Vatican and the Pontifical Academy for Life, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, and the helpful documents from the NCBC. The goal is to take these high-level documents and use them to help us make practical decisions here in Alabama.
Since I know many people are looking for practical guidance right now, I will go ahead and summarize the conclusion of the overall article series: the Vatican and the NCBC have indicated that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines—the ones currently approved in the United States—are morally satisfactory from the Church’s standpoint, since they have not used cells derived from aborted fetal tissue for production or development. Both companies unfortunately used such stem cells in some late-stage confirmatory tests, but these vaccines are not intrinsically tied to abortion. When you have access to them, you can receive them in good conscience! In fact, receiving them is a very positive and important way for Catholics to witness to God’s and our love for every human being.
(This article first appeared in the Jan. 22, 2021 issue of the One Voice newspaper.)